Ion Antonescu

Background

Old Romania achieves independence in 1878, becoming a constitutional monarchy. The new nation is deeply nationalistic and determined to maintain its freedom but remains incomplete. The ethnically Romanian regions of Transylvania to the west, and Bukovina and Bessarabia to the north and east lie outside the country's borders. Transylvania and Bukovina are part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bessarabia is held by Russia.

Romania's Jewish population begins to expand rapidly during the 19th Century, mainly as a result of immigration. In 1899 the Jewish population of Old Romania is estimated to number 260,000. In 1930 the Jewish population of Greater Romania (Old Romania plus Transylvania, Bukovina and Bessarabia) is estimated to number 730,000, making Greater Romania's Jewish community the third largest in Eastern Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland. Many Romanians see the newcomers as an economic and social threat. Jews face increasing levels of antisemitism. More background.

Mini biography

Born in Pitesti, about 110 km northwest of Bucharest, on 15 June 1882, into an average family. Though an avowed antisemite, Antonescu becomes engaged to two separate Jewish women and marries a third. His father also divorces his mother to marry a Jewish woman.

Antonescu receives his education in French military schools and pursues a career in the army. By 1907 he has risen to the rank of lieutenant.

1907 - Antonescu participates in the suppression of a peasant revolt in and around the city of Galati, about 180 km northeast of Bucharest, gaining the attention of his superiors for his initiative and ruthlessness.

1913 - Antonescu participates in the Second Balkan War against Bulgaria, winning Old Romania's highest military decoration.

1914 - The First World War begins early in August, with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) pitted against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). Old Romania stays out of the conflict, waiting to see which side may prevail.

Old Romania's first constitutional monarch, King Carol I, dies. He is succeeded by his nephew, Ferdinand. Ferdinand's wife, Queen Marie, the British-born princess of Edinburgh, is the real power behind the throne. It is Marie who negotiates the conditions for Old Romania's participation in the war. In exchange for its support, Old Romania asks to be granted sovereignty over Transylvania, The Banat and Bukovina (all in Hungary) and Bessarabia (in Russia).

1916 - The Triple Entente agrees in full to Queen Marie's terms. On 27 August Old Romania declares war on Austria-Hungary. The war initially goes poorly for Old Romania, with Central Power forces counterattacking, occupying Bucharest, and forcing Old Romania to cede territory and pay reparations. However, the situation reverses when the Triple Entente gains the upper hand over the Central Powers.

Antonescu serves as operational chief-of-staff to army commander Constantin Prezan during the war. Towards the end of the conflict he is made chief-of-operations on the army general staff.

1918 - The war ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice. The Central Powers have been defeated. The Allies now begin to carve up the spoils.

Old Romania is more than doubled in size when its claim to Transylvania, The Banat, Bukovina, and Bessarabia is formally recognised by the Allies. The expanded country is commonly known as Greater Romania. It's first free elections are held in 1919.

However, the acquisition of the new territory is not without cost. The integration of foreign nationalities and institutions leads to an increase in Romanian nationalism, discrimination against Hungarians and other minorities, and a rise in antisemitism.

1922 - In October King Ferdinand becomes the monarch of Greater Romania. The following year a new constitution is introduced establishing a highly centralised state and giving the king the power to appoint the prime minister. The constitution also grants citizenship rights to Romanian Jews.

Antonescu is appointed as military attaché in Paris. From 1923 to 1926 he serves as military attaché in London, where he meets and marries a French-Jewish woman, who bears him his only child. The couple later divorce. Their child dies at an early age.

1929 - Despite experiencing rapid growth following the First World War, Romania's agriculture-dependent economy is thrown into crisis when the New York Stock Exchange crash of October sees world grain prices collapse.

The "agricultural crisis" helps feed the growth of the Iron Guard, the virulently antisemitic and anticommunist paramilitary wing of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, an ultra-nationalistic Romanian fascist group founded by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu in 1923.

The Iron Guard advocates war against Jews and communists. It violently confronts its opponents on the streets and clandestinely organises and commits political assassinations. Its members are known as Legionnaires.

The Guard becomes the largest fascist movement in the Balkans. Its growing influence contributes significantly to the political instability that plagues Romania throughout the decade.

Iron Guard leader Corneliu Codreanu is elected to the Romanian Parliament in July 1931. The following year he is joined in parliament by five other Legionnaires. In 1935 there are 4,200 Legionary sub-branches, called "nests", within Romania. By January 1937 the number has grown to 12,000. By the end of that year there are 34,000.

However, the Iron Guard does not go unopposed. Among those engaged in the fight against the fascists is the young Nicolae Ceausescu, a member of the communist youth movement who is destined to become a future dictator of Romania.

France, Romania's international patron, also applies pressure. The Iron Guard is supposedly dissolved at the end of 1933. In reality it continues, building ties with the Nazi Party in Germany and, under the name Totul Pentru Tara (All For The Country), standing for seats in the Romanian Parliament.

1930 - King Ferdinand's son, Crown Prince Carol, is proclaimed king. He is known as King Carol II.

1934 - Antonescu is made a general and appointed as chief of the Romanian general staff. In 1937 he is appointed as minister of defence.

1937 - A general election is held in December. Totul Pentru Tara wins 16% of the vote, gaining 66 seats and becoming the third largest party in the parliament. However, the overall result is inconclusive, with no party able to achieve an absolute majority.

King Carol II asks the National Christian Party to form a coalition government, despite the fact that it finished fourth in the election. The party is strongly antisemitic and quickly introduces laws that severely restrict the rights of Romanian Jews. Jews are barred from the public service and the army. Jewish businesses are closed down. Jews are prevented from buying property.

The new government does not last long. Mounting political turmoil and the chance that the National Christian Party may form an alliance with the Iron Guard, prompt King Carol II to intervene.

1938 - On 12 February, King Carol II suspends the constitution and assumes dictatorial powers.

On 19 April the police arrest and imprison Corneliu Codreanu and other Iron Guard leaders and crack down on the Guard's rank and file. On 29 November Codreanu and 13 Iron Guards are shot dead by the police, allegedly while they are attempting to escape custody. However, it is widely believed that the killings have been staged on the order of King Carol II.

1939 - On 23 August the Soviet Union and Germany sign a nonaggression pact carving up Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The USSR claims Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, part of the Balkans, including Romania, and half of Poland.

German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Romania's prime minister proclaims the country's neutrality on 6 September but is assassinated by the Iron Guard on 21 September.

1940 - Romania is forced to give up about one-third of its territory to surrounding powers. The Soviet Union takes Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in June. The north of Transylvania is ceded to Hungary in August. Southern Dobruja is handed to Bulgaria.

The carve up leaves Romania on the brink of revolution. To forestall that possibility, King Carol II appoints Antonescu as prime minister. However, the king is unable to save himself. On 6 September pressure from Antonescu, the Iron Guard, his own advisers and the general public forces him to abdicate. King Carol II leaves the country. He is replaced by his son, Prince Michael.

The young king is a mere figurehead. Real power lies with Antonescu and Horia Sima, the leader of the Iron Guard. Together they establish the National Legionary Government. Antonescu is named Conducator (Leader). Sima is appointed as deputy prime minister.

The new government introduces stricter antisemitic laws and places new restrictions on Jewish business people and professionals. Violent attacks on Jews and supporters of King Carol II by the Iron Guard are tolerated. Property owned by Jews is expropriated. Jews are dismissed or excluded from most occupations. Jewish teachers and students are excluded from the state education system. Jews are deprived of the right to vote.

Romania formally joins the Axis Powers on 23 November, bringing it into the war on the side of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

Under Antonescu's leadership, Romania becomes one of Germany's staunchest allies, providing the Nazis with food, fuel and more combat troops than all of Germany's other allies combined. Antonescu meets regularly with German leader Adolf Hitler. German forces are allowed to cross into Romania unopposed.

1941 - Antonescu acts to curb the excesses of the Iron Guard. On 21 January the Guard rebels, killing 121 Jews during a violent three-day rampage. The rebellion is crushed by the military. The days of the Iron Guard as a force within Romania have effectively come to an end. Antonescu assumes full control of the state.

Further anti-Jewish measures are now introduced, including the establishment of a National Romanianisation Centre, a quasi-police institution tasked with removing Jews from Romanian life and profiting from the nationalisation of their assets.

Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. They are supported by Romania's 3rd and 4th Armies, numbering about 250,000 troops. The invasion forces advance swiftly east towards Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Moscow, where they are halted on 6 December by a Russian counteroffensive.

Speaking to investigators in the Soviet Union, Antonescu later says, "Since Hitler's offer to initiate a joint campaign against the USSR corresponded to my own aggressive intentions, I announced my agreement to participate in the attack on the Soviet Union and pledged myself to prepare the necessary number of Romanian troops and, at the same time, to increase deliveries of the oil and food required by the German armies."

The invasion is initially favourable for Romania and Antonescu. Hitler honours an agreement to return sovereignty over Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to Romania. The country is also allowed to annex Soviet lands immediately east of the Dniester River. A Romanian military administration is established in this region (known as Transnistria), with headquarters in Odessa. In recognition of the territorial gains, Antonescu is rewarded in Romania with the title Marshal.

Meanwhile, the situation for Romania's minorities deteriorates. Jews suffer increased discrimination and violence as they come to be viewed as potential allies and spies of the Soviet Union.

On 18 June Antonescu orders the evacuation of 40,000 Jews from villages and small towns in the Old Romania core to urban ghettos and detention camps. Jewish property is confiscated and nationalised.

On 28 June Romanian troops, police and civilians acting on Antonescu's orders begin an operation to "cleanse" Jews from Iasi, the country's second city and the capital of the northern province of Moldavia. The Romanians are assisted by German troops.

Over two days, Iasi's Jews are hunted down and killed. The survivors are crammed onto trains for transportation to other parts of Romania. Thousands do not survive the journey. It is estimated that at least 15,000 Jews die as a result of the Iasi progom.

An operation to "cleanse" Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia begins in July. Thousands are killed outright by German and Romanian army units assisted by Ukrainian and Romanian civilians. Over 155,000 survivors are deported to concentration camps and urban ghettos in Transnistria, the Romanian administered "killing field" to the east of the Dniester River. Only about 47,000 survive.

Jews in the Old Romania core fare better. Of the estimated 360,000 Jews living in Old Romania in 1941, at least 290,000 survive the war, principally because Antonescu postpones a Romanian-German plan to deport all Jews from the region to Nazi concentration camps in Poland. It is believed that the Antonescu regime's policy towards the Jews changed once it became apparent that Germany might lose the war.

All told, about 320,000 members of Greater Romania's pre-war Jewish community of 730,000 die during the war. At least 160,000 from Bessarabia and Bukovina are killed. At least 40,000 from Old Romania are killed. Jews from northern Transylvania are targeted by the Hungarian government. About 120,000 are killed.

As well as Jews from Greater Romania, up to 180,000 local Jews from the Transnistria administration area die as a consequence of orders issued by Antonescu.

The total number of Jews killed in areas under Antonescu's administration during the Romanian Holocaust is about 380,000 - at least 40,000 from Old Romania, 160,000 from Bessarabia and Bukovina, and 180,000 from Transnistria.

According to the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, "Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself. ... Romania committed genocide against the Jews."

About 25,000 members of Romania's Roma (Gypsy) population are also deported to Transnistria. Around 11,000 die. The decision to deport the Roma is made personally by Antonescu.

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad. Over 250,000 German-led troops are killed during the battle, including the majority of the Romanian soldiers accompanying the Germans.

By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. They now begin to move west towards Romania and Germany.

1944 - The Red Army crosses into Romania on 20 August. On 23 August King Michael, aided by a number of army officers and armed communist-led civilians, and supported by the National Democratic Bloc, orders the arrest of Antonescu and seizes control of the government.

The king quickly restores the 1923 constitution, orders a cease-fire with the Allied forces, and declares war on Germany. The Red Army occupies Bucharest on 31 August 1944. On 12 September Romania and the Soviet Union sign an armistice.

Romania agrees to pay reparations of US$300 million, repeal anti-Jewish laws, ban fascist groups, and cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. However, the country regains sovereignty over northern Transylvania.

Romanian troops now side with the Soviet forces in the advance against Germany.

Antonescu is taken to the Soviet Union for interrogation before being returned to Romania to stand trial as a war criminal.

1945 - The war ends on 7 May when Germany surrenders unconditionally. Romania's military causalities while fighting with the Germans against the Soviet Union total about 110,000 troops killed and 180,000 missing or captured. About 130,000 soldiers have been deported to the Soviet Union, where many have perished in prison camps.

Romania's military causalities while fighting with the Soviets for the liberation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary total about about 120,000 killed.

Antonescu can be held responsible for making decisions and issuing orders that resulted in the death of about 380,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma and at least 110,000 Romanian soldiers. The total is at least 510,000.

1946 - Antonescu is prosecuted for war crimes in May. He is condemned to death on 17 May and executed by firing squad on 1 June at the Fort Jilava Prison in a suburb of Bucharest.

A leftist government wins what is considered to be a rigged general election held on 19 November. Romania falls behind the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. With Soviet backing, the Romanian Communist Party takes control of the government. King Michael is forced to abdicate.

Romania remains under communist rule until December 1989, when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown in a violent revolution.

Postscript

2003 - After decades of denial about the role of Romania in the Holocaust, the Romanian Government issues a statement saying that the Antonescu regime "was guilty of grave war crimes, pogroms, and mass deportations of Romanian Jews to territories occupied or controlled by the Romanian Army" from 1940 to 1944.

The Antonescu regime also employed "methods of discrimination and extermination which were part of the Holocaust," the statement says.

In October the government announces that it has set up the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. The commission is headed by the Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. It hands down its report in November 2004.

Comment

The apparent contradictions in aspects of Ion Antonescu's character could perhaps be better attributed to a combination of volatility and calculation than to any underlying moral turmoil. He was deeply antisemitic, believing there was "a conspiracy of world Jewry against Romania" and that Jews were evil incarnate, but was engaged to two Jewish women and married a third.

He sent tens of thousands of Jews and other minorities off to die in the death camps of Transnistria, but when he realised that the game was up for Hitler's Third Reich allowed the survivors to return and stopped the deportation of Romania's remaining Jewish population.

He believed that he had been chosen by "higher powers" to usher in a golden age in Romania's history but ended up creating the conditions that would allow a takeover by the communists who he hated and who would bring the country to its knees.

He could be subject to violent mood swings, reputedly needed constant medical supervision, and earned the nickname Red Dog because of his red hair, displays of arrogance, and willingness to spill other people's blood.

More information